The following section articulates one of the three important properties of regenerative systems in the context of the business world and the eight forms of capital.
Edges & Connections
Rather than simply increasing the quantity, amount, or volume of a certain form of capital, regenerative systems develop the quality, complexity, or connectivity of capital. Any framework that requires ever-increasing quantities of capital will lead to the same result as the current extractive economy: cancer-like exponential growth. For example, the infinite growth of financial capital required by today’s global economy requires an ever-increasing manufacture and consumption of material capital products. Like cancer, the current economy is extracting unsustainable amounts of living capital to maintain its exponential growth – unless the system can be transformed, this will likely lead to overall collapse. Also like cancer, some of the causes of the current extractive mindset may be ‘environmental’ factors in the personal, internal, and social ecosystems of all of us humans who maintain the system.
Infinite growth of quantities of capital is not the goal. Instead, regenerative cultivation develops the quality, the richness, and the connectivity of different forms of capital. In the current extractive economy, material capital is mass-produced, homogenous and disconnected from its place. Cultivation of material capital in a regenerative context leads to material goods and structures that are handcrafted, beautiful, directly connected to their place, and full of life. Picture the difference between a vinyl-sided modular home and a green -roofed earthen home, or the open-air bamboo and hardwood houses of the tropics. Or the difference between the dull uniformity of mass-produced dish sets and the uniquely glazed and subtly asymmetric warmth of a hand-thrown clay bowl.
For living capital, consider the example of a farm. Rather than increasing the raw quantity of goods produced, regenerative cultivation would increase the quality (nutrient density, resilience, beauty) and the diversity of the goods produced out of the same space. The number of connections between elements on the farm also increase – the inherent input requirements of one element are met by the inherent outputs of other elements. Rather than disposing of manure and purchasing chemical fertilizers, the manure is composted to create biologically-active fertilizer. The more functional interconnections are cultivated in a system, the more resilience and robustness it will exhibit when
inevitable disturbances occur.19
In practical terms, one way to increase the number of connections between elements is to increase the amount of edge or surface area in the system.20
In living ecosystems the edges between different habitats are rich in biological diversity. The blending availability of resources from each habitat creates a situation where more species can live and interact than in either of the two adjoining habitats on their own.21
If only the size of either habitat increases, the amount of edge remains the same. This does not necessarily add richness to the system. However, cultivating and growing the edge itself can offer significant benefits to both habitats without increasing the size of either.
Figure 4.1 – Cultivating edge. The darker side has an equal amount of area in both images, while the image on the right has four times the amount of edge for interconnections and exchange.
For a well-known example of the beautiful diversity and richness of edge, consider coral reefs. They form at the edge between land and sea, anchored to firm bedrock where the agitated tropical water constantly moves. They also exhibit an incredible amount of edge within themselves: Every crenulation of coral, every waving seaweed, every tiny area of three-dimensional topography is home to a myriad of creatures. Edge-abundant coral reefs are some of the world’s most productive ecosystems, hosting millions of symbiotic relationships and a vast biodiversity.22
Another widespread example of edge in the natural world comes from examining a tree. If a tree attempted to grow the quantity of it’s biomass alone, it would look like a large spherical blob. This would negate the tree’s ability to efficiently connect nutrients from the soil with energy from the sun. Instead of optimizing for volume as an organism, trees grow to optimize edge (surface area) while minimizing the relative volume of its biomass. In other words, trees choose to produce less wood and more leaves.
Trees also cultivate a vast amount of edge underground, by spreading their roots in a dendritic fractal pattern through the soil to efficiently gain access to as many nutrients and as much water as possible. They then multiply the amount of edge several orders of magnitude by developing symbiotic relationships with mycorrhizal fungi, who trade tree-produced sugars for extended access to nutrients and moisture through their networks of fungal hyphae.
With all of this connective edge, trees explode down into the earth and up into the sky, creating a sustained and beautiful pattern of growth with multiple functions for the ecosystem as a whole.
The current global economy and society has deeply accepted the idea that “growth is good.” To turn the human desire for growth away from extraction and towards regeneration, it must be refocused on surface area and connections: Regeneratively cultivating capital means increasing the amount and complexity of edge, not just growing the size of the system.
Regenerative Enterprise: Optimizing for Multi-Capital Abundance by Ethan C. Roland & Gregory Landua
19 Walker, Brian, and David Salt. Resilience Thinking: SustainingEcosystems and People in a Changing World. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2006.
20 Mollison, Bill. Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. Australia: Tagari Publications, 1988.
21 Barbour, Michael G., Jack H. Burk, and Wanna D. Pitts. Terrestrial Plant Ecology, 2nd ed. Reading, MA: Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Company, Inc. 1987.
22 “Coral reefs.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Accessed 20 Mar. 2013.
©2013 Ethan C. Roland & Gregory Landua. All Rights Reserved.